Monday 17 October 2011

Behold our God (Revelation 4)


What do Christians mean by the word “worship”? In the bible, various words translated as worship usually mean “bowing down”(Hebrew: shachac; Greek: proskuneo) or “serving” (Hebrew: ‘abad; Greek: latreuo). That is, they often translate a physical action or response toward God such as offering sacrifices or falling down on your knees.

It is different in English.

In English, “worship” comes from the word “worth”. It means giving back to God what he is worth. So we read in today’s passage, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory, honour and power.” (Revelation 4:11)

This passage isn’t about how to worship God: Do we sing? Do we give money? Do we stand up or sit down? Will there be electric guitars in heaven? No, it does not teach us how to worship God. Rather, it tells us why we should worship God.

It tells us why God is worthy of our worship.

After this...

After this I looked and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
Revelation 4:1-2

I just want to remind you that John is writing this from prison. He is a pastor who has been arrested and sentenced to spend the rest of his life isolated from other Christians. He is suffering in prison alone. But here he continues to worship God. And here, Jesus appears to John.

And Jesus says to him, “Write what you see on a scroll and send it to the seven churches” (Revelation 1:11). Write to other Christians and remind them: They are not suffering alone. So, we’ve seen in the past weeks, John writes to seven churches reminding them that Jesus knows everything they are going through. He is with them in their suffering.

That was Chapters 2 and 3. But now, Chapter 4 begins with John saying, “After this” - that is, after the seven letters to the seven churches. But notice that Jesus also says in verse 2, “I am going to show what must take place... after this.” That is significant.

After you’ve read the seven letters - after reading Chapters 2 and 3 - keep on reading. Some people like to split Revelation into two parts: The first part, which are the letters to the churches, which is relevant to us as Christians today; and the second part which is just weird and confusing. Don’t bother with the weird chapters. Chapters 1 to 3 are the safe chapters, like watching the BBC Channels - Strictly Come Dancing, Great British Bake-Off, the daily news-roundup - stick to those channels. Chapters 4’s where you find the dodgy stuff, it’s the Sci-Fi channel - Dr Who, Star Trek, anything with Vin Diesel in it. Chapter 4 is OK for geeks and weirdos; keep to the safe chapters.

But no, John says, there’s more to Revelation that chapters 1 to 3. After this, much much more happens. Jesus says to John, after this, God has determined what must happen.

That is because Revelation is not one book with two parts; nor is it one book with seven letters stuck in the front. Revelation is one book with one message to all of God’s people, symbolised by the seven churches. As far as Chapters 1 to 3 are concerned, that’s just the address line in the letter - “Dear Ephesus, Dear Smyrna... “ and so on. Today we begin with the body of the letter.

Jesus says, “Come.” He says he will show us what must take place after this.

The throne

At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
Revelation 4:3-6

What John sees is a throne: one sitting on the throne; twenty-four other smaller thrones around this throne; lightning coming from the throne. Verses 3, 4, 5 and 6 all focus on this one throne in heaven.

Now we need to keep in mind that John says he was “in the Spirit” (verse 3). He keeps describing what he saw by saying “it looked like this” or “It had an appearance like that”. Meaning: these visions were hard to describe. He was trying his best to get the message across, but these images given him in the Spirit were so amazing beyond words.

So, later on, when he says that he saw a living creature that looked like a lion -  it doesn’t mean it was a lion, but that it looked like a lion; the creature that had a face like a man - doesn’t mean that it was a man - but that what John saw looked like a man.

Still, this does not mean that the images are random. John chooses words and images that are actually familiar to his readers. He wants to help them - and to help us - to understand fully what he saw. In fact, these are images that we find recurring in the Old Testament. Meaning this: John is describing what he sees, but also what they signify. Meaning: if you know your Old Testament, you may be more familiar with many of these images and what they mean.

First of all, John sees a throne.

The throne signifies that God is king and that he rules from heaven. We need to remember that this was a culture where everyone sat on the floor. To sit on a throne was to place yourself above everyone else in the room. It was a position of authority. Kings sat on a throne. Judges sat down when they delivered a verdict. In church today, the speaker normally stands while everyone else sits on chairs, but in Jesus’ day, when the bible was read in the synagogue, everyone in the room would stand, and the person read the scroll would be sitting down.

Here, God sits on his throne and all of heaven worships him before the throne.

God is described as having the appearance of “jasper and carnelian” - precious stones; today we might say “diamonds and rubies”. The idea is that of light: God is the source of light. At the end of Revelation it tells us that there is no sun, for the only source of light is God himself and Jesus - God is the source of all light. But here, John describes God as a light that is brilliant - that is attractive. Not light from a fluorescent lamp - cold, boring, like the ones you find in office buildings - rather it’s like looking at a chandelier. This is light brilliantly emanating from a source that looks like diamonds. Similar to when a girl gets engaged and everyone crowds round and says, “Let me see the ring.” It doesn’t matter how big or how small the ring is: everyone wants to look at the diamond. Everyone is drawn to its beauty and preciousness.

And from this light we get a rainbow. John tells us “a rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne”. God is the source of light, and his glory is manifested into a myriad of colours - the way the colours of a rainbow are refracted from its source.

So far, heaven is very different from the all white, boy-band image, Harry Potter death-scene, Star Wars sterilised cloud-city image we are used. It is colourful! It is brilliant and glorious. And God is right at the centre of heaven, not hidden away in the distance.

But the rainbow also reminds us of God’s mercy. God told Noah, after the destruction of the flood that covered the whole earth, “Never again will I cause the waters to become a flood to destroy all life” in Genesis 9. As a sign of his promise he placed a rainbow in the clouds.

Now the fact that we see this rainbow here, in heaven, before God’s throne, means he is still keeping his word. Its not here on earth, after it rains a bit and we might find a faint hint of a rainbow in the sky. Here the rainbow “encircles the throne”. It is part of the furniture, “in emerald”. Almost as if, God is reminding himself, he will never break his word. He will always be merciful, gracious, faithful to his covenant.

Our God is sovereign: he sits on the throne. Our God is faithful: he keeps his promises.

Also around the throne are twenty-four other thrones and on them are twenty-four elders. God sits on the throne - he has all power and authority - but he invests his authority in others, in these twenty-four elders or leaders, who also sit on twenty-four thrones.

The number 24 is significant. It represents the whole people of God, under the old and new covenants symbolising the 12 tribes of Israel under the Old Covenant, and the 12 disciples of Jesus under the new - all the people of God are represented in heaven before God. All who are redeemed - saved - under the Old and New Covenants are there.

Some prefer to think of these elders as actual people from biblical history: specifically, the twelve sons of Jacob followed by the twelve apostles of Jesus. After all, Jesus does say in Matthew 19 to his disciples, “You will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).

More likely, however, these are not people but angelic beings. I do not think that these are the twelve sons of Israel and the twelve apostles; first of all, because John would then be seeing his future self seated there on the throne, worshipping God (“Hmm, future me needs to lose some weight.” It would be like a scene from Dr Who where River Song sees her future self on Lake Silencio.)

Secondly, we see in the next chapter that these elders distinguish themselves from the redeemed community of God, when they say to Jesus, “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). Meaning: they are not part of saved community.

Rather, I think these elders are angelic beings, always in God’s presence, always representing all God’s people; in the same way that we saw that there were seven angels representing seven churches back in Chapters 2 and 3.

There is something to be said about their being called “elders”. God has given them authority: they sit on twelve thrones; they wear crowns of gold on their heads; in the same way, that the elders of a church are given authority by God over his people. This authority is from God in submission to God. Later on we see in verse 10: “The twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne.” These elders in heaven are doing two things: they are always worshipping God and they are always in submission to Jesus. Peter writes to fellow elders and fellow pastors in 1 Peter 5 - he uses the two terms interchangeably - urging them to be pastors of God’s flock under their care. “And when Chief Shepherd appears (or Jesus, the Senior Pastor appears - “pastor” simply means “shepherd” in the bible), you will receive a crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).

God rules from his throne in heaven but he mediates his authority through his angels, through elders and through leaders to lead God’s people graciously and lovingly.

What we have so far, is the vision of God ruling from heaven in majesty, glory and power. The rainbow reminds us of God’s faithfulness and mercy. The twenty-four elders on twenty-four thrones represent God’s people under the Old and New Covenants, in worship and in submission.

But next we will see God in his awesome holiness. And we will see him sitting in judgement over those opposed to his rule and authority.

The sea

From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
Revelation 4:5-6

The scene is reminiscent of the events in Exodus - the thunder and lightning; the sea. Remember how Moses led the people of God out of slavery from Egypt to God’s mountain at Sinai. And there we read that God’s people were afraid. The mountain was covered in smoke; there was fire on this mountain, thunder and lightning. God was a holy God. This was God’s holy mountain. At Sinai, God speaks to them with a voice like a trumpet, similar to the voice John heard at the beginning of the chapter.

And here we see that God’s spirit is holy. There are seven lamps burning before him, referring either to God’s seven-fold spirit, his Holy Spirit. Or even possibly referring back to Chapters 2 and 3, to the seven churches in which his Spirit dwells. God wants his church to be holy as he dwells in them.

And before the throne is what John calls “a sea of glass, clear as crystal”. It is tempting at this point to imagine God on a holiday by the beach, dozing off on his deck chair, staring into the deep blue sea, as if this were a picture of calm and serenity. But that could not be farther from the truth.

In the bible, the sea is symbolic of chaos, destruction and evil. Daniel records a vision of the “four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came out of the sea” (Daniel 7:2-3). The same thing happens in Revelation Chapter 13 where dragon - symbolising the devil - stands on the shore of the sea, out of which emerges the beast of the sea.

When John says the sea was like “glass” (verse 6) he wasn’t describing the smooth shiny surface of an iPod Touch. Glass in the ancient world was full of imperfections. So, when verse 6 says that the sea was “like crystal” (the word “clear” isn’t in the text) - it is actually describing movement and motion. This was a raging sea.

In the very same vision Daniel records of the sea, and the beasts emerging from the sea, he writes:

As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze.
Daniel 7:9

The sea represents all that is opposed to God. And here in this vision, we find this image of rebellion right before the throne, before the presence of Almighty God. What does this signify? God is sovereign even in the face of opposition. He sits on his throne of fire ready to pour out judgement on all the forces of evil that stand opposed to him.
It reminds us: even though we live in a world broken by sin; even though we live in a world in opposition to God and does not want to acknowledge that there is a God - God still reigns. He will judge. But his patience and grace means salvation. We should not take that for granted nor should we despair. God is sovereign even over a world that rebels against him.

God is still on the throne.

The four living creatures

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings.
Revelation 4:6-8

The next time you are at St John’s College (it’s opposite Hong Kong Fusion Restaurant!), look up at the gatehouse where you will see a stone statue of John the gospel writer, standing in a tabernacle, and if you look at his feet you will notice a golden eagle. Now the reason why the eagle is there (and you’ll find golden statues of eagles all around the college) is because of this passage in Revelation. In the past, people used to think the four living creatures represented the four gospel writers. Matthew was the man, Mark was the lion, Luke was the ox and John was the eagle. No biblical reason whatsoever to support this, but it was popular at one time in history, nonetheless.

The four creatures are likely to be angelic beings, similar to the twenty-four elders. While this bit of the vision might seem the strangest, it is actually one of the most familiar from the Old Testament. The prophet Ezekiel records his vision of God’s throne where he saw four angelic beings with wings, each having a face of a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle.

I think that altogether, these four creatures (literally, “living ones”) symbolise all of God’s creation. We have just seen the sea in rebellion towards God, but here we see creation in worship of God. That is what we were made for - worship. The four living creation continuously offer worship before the living God. They are covered in eyes - a symbol of God’s all-knowing nature, sometimes called him omniscience - telling us that God knows everything that happens in the world that he has made.

John tells us these four creatures are in perpetual worship.

Day and night they never stop saying:
“Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.”
Revelation 4:8

This is what the four living creatures say day and night. They are in perpetual praise of God. While you were sleeping last night, they were praising God. While you were driving to church, parked your car and stopped off for a bite to eat, these four living creatures around the throne were saying, “Holy, holy, holy!”

This is continuous, ongoing, unceasing worship in heaven in the presence of God. Not just on Sundays. Not just when the music is playing. Continuous, ongoing and unceasing praise of God for his holiness and majesty.

God is three-times holy. It is a superlative. In English, we might use words like “holy”, “holier” and “holiest” to describe degrees of holiness. But in Hebrew, you represented degree by repeating the word: “Holy, Holy Holy”. It is saying that God is the Most Holy God. It is the very definition of God. He is Holy.

At the heart of worship is knowing who God is. He is holy. He is “Almighty” - referring again to his authority and majesty. In the Old Testament, “Almighty” often translates “Lord of hosts” which is a picture of the God who owns all armies and every authority, again referring back to the picture of God as king on the throne and God as judge on the throne.

And he is the Everlasting God. Who was, who is and who is to come. He is coming. One day, all will see God for who he truly is. One day, this vision is what we will see, because Jesus will come and display his full glory before his new creation.

At the heart of this worship is the true God, and knowing who this true God is. He is holy, Almighty, Everlasting. And the four living creatures never stop worshipping. Now the difference between us and these four creatures is not simply that they are always worshipping and we aren’t. No, the real difference is that they worship the true God and we often don’t.

We are all worshippers - we were made to worship. And the problem is we worship what we do not know, we worship idols or we worship ourselves. Jesus dares to tell the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know.” (John 4) Doesn’t matter how sincere you are. Do you know this God who has revealed himself in creation but more so, in the bible? Paul says to the Athenians, “Let me tell you about this God you say is unknown, he is the God who made the world, he is the God who made you, he is the God who sent Jesus Christ.” (Acts 17)

We are worshippers, and we are always worshipping, but often we worship other gods, even in the knowledge of the true God. We look for satisfaction and fulfilment in something else other than God. The bible calls that idolatry.

You see this in ads that say, “You’re worth it.” You deserve to look beautiful and attractive, so buying this product, spending your money, taking the time to use this shampoo, will make you the person you deserve to be. Beautiful. Adored. We want to be worshipped. We want to be on the throne.

Instead what we find here in Revelation are angels saying to God, “You are worth it!” They say to God, “You are worthy!”

You are worthy

Whenever the living creatures give glory, honour and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:

“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honour and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”
Revelation 4:9-11

God is worthy or worship. That’s what they are saying. That is what worship means - giving God his worth.

Again, the person who is still thinking, “I am worth it!” may turn around and ask, “Is God worth it?” It is worth my time paying any attention to this God. Is it worth my life trusting in this God? And granted, the bible does promise that he is. God offers forgiveness, reconciliation, eternal life, heavenly reward to all who place their trust in Jesus alone. Yet asking, “Is God worth it?” is fundamentally a flawed question when it comes to worship.

It is the question a person asks when he spends all night trawling through eBay looking for that deal - trying to get the most of the least. It is the question the new graduate asks when deciding what job to apply for - which has the best perks and the biggest salary. It is the question, I wonder, that maybe many Cambridge Christian students are asking when after weeks and later, months in university they still hop from church to church - is this where I will get the most for my precious time on a Sunday morning. What can I get out of this? Where can I get the most for the least?

Yes friends, God is worth it. But this passage teaches us a greater truth. God is worthy.

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive all glory and honour and power, for you created all things.” God created you. The first thing we learn in our bibles is that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He made you. He owns you. That is why he is worthy. He made you to worship him.

Our desire to worship ourselves is a fundamental indication that we reject God as our creator. We don’t want to be owned. We don’t want to owe anybody anything.

But Revelation also says, “By your will they were created and have their being.” Your very existence is owed to God. Every breath. Every moment. Every new day is a new sign of God’s loving grace to you. He sustains all of creation purely by his will.

At the very least, we ought to thank him, should we? Verse 9 says the living creatures give glory, honour and thanks to God. It is simply recognising God for what he has done for us. Worship is a response. You worship truly by knowing the true God.

He is holy. He is Almighty. He is Everlasting. He is your creator. He continues to sustain you by his will.

And he made you to worship him.

Jesus is worthy

The real question you need to ask yourselves is not “Am I worshipping today?” Or “Do I stand for this song?” No, the more fundamental question is, “Do you know who this God is?”

That is what Jesus wanted to show John. Here was a man in prison, isolated from his friends, suffering for the gospel. But on the Lord’s Day - on a Sunday like this - he worshipped God. Jesus used him to encourage other Christians who are also suffering to show them - God is still God. God is still on the throne.

And you what else? Revelation 4 is just a set-up for Revelation 5. Because next week see how God left the throne to come to us. Next week we see Jesus.

He left the worship of angels to be rejected by men. He left the glory of heaven to crucified on a cross. He submitted himself to the will of his Father and was obedient unto death. And there on the cross, Jesus was enthroned. He took our sin and shame upon himself, bearing our punishment for our rebellion against God.

Because there on the cross, Jesus offered the only true sacrifice to the only true God. He offers our worship so that we would be acceptable before a holy God. On the cross, we see that Jesus, the Lamb of God who was slain, is worthy of all our praise, our thanks and our worship.

Behold our God. Come let us adore him.

Who has held the oceans in His hand
Who has numbered every grain of sand
Kings and nations tremble at His voice
All creation rises to rejoice

Behold our God seated on His throne
Come let us adore Him
Behold our King nothing can compare
Come let us adore Him!
(“Behold our God”, Sovereign Grace Music)

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